“It was to escape from the world that I found myself each day at the zoo. The beast I knew best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many pleasant hours in this way.”
Carrington was twenty when she wrote “The Debutante.” I think of her living with Max Ernst—more than twice her age and married—in a village in Southern France in an old farmhouse bought with money cadged from her mother but registered only in his name, World War II already a threatening cloud on the horizon. I think of her painting alongside an already well-established artist and then slipping away to write these fierce, strange, little stories, making worlds only she could see. I was twenty-three when I bought the then new 1993 Virago edition of Carrington’s stories and read this feral, bloody, wildly funny story about disturbingly entitled rebellion (the poor maid!). I’ve been writing towards it ever since.
Originally written in 1937. Possibly published in French in a small magazine—Carrington’s publication history is complex! Collected in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Plume, 1988. Republished with an introduction by Marina Warner by Virago in 1993. Now available in The Debutante and Other Stories, Silver Press, 2017 and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Dorothy, 2017
Leonora Carrington was a lifelong lover of animals. I remember reading that as she child she was so fond of her horse that for a time she believed she was a horse too. Horses and hyenas often feature in her magnificent Surrealist paintings and short stories. In ‘The Debutante’, the female narrator is a frequent visitor to her local zoo. There she befriends a hyena, who turns out to be very intelligent – “I taught her French and she, in turn, taught me her language.” Keen to avoid playing the debutante and going to a ball, she and the hyena plot to swap places. This involves killing her maid Mary, so that the hyena can nibble off her face and adopt it as a mask. The prose is clean and simple, and the merry tone of the story makes the sudden swerve towards violence even more blackly comic and disturbing. Whilst the hyena goes to the ball, the debutante is able to stay in and enjoy reading Gulliver’s Travels. The hilarious, satirical twist at the end explores how difficult it is to maintain masks, especially when young women are expected to play feminine and nice; the hyena certainly can’t keep up the pretence for long…
First published in 1940 in André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour.Collected inThe Debutante and Other Stories, Silver Press 2017
‘As They Rode Along The Edge’ is from Carrington’s collection The Seventh Horse and Other Tales. Haunting, humorous and viscerally violent, these surrealist texts are unearthed from fairy tales and nightmares. Carrington wrote “I’ve always had access to other worlds. We all do because we dream.” ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ is the story of Virginia Fur who “has a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty hair” and travels the countryside on a wheel, surrounded by fifty cats. It is a gruesome myth of revenge against hunting, wild boars, one hundred nuns and a terrible feast, attended by a million birds of the night.
From The Seventh Horses and other Tales, EP Dutton, 1988. Also Penguin, 1988 and Virago, 1989
Carrington’s narrator has had enough of attending “cocktail-drinking, prize-giving-and-taking, artistic demonstrations and other casually hazardous gatherings organized for the purpose of people wasting other people’s time”. After various misadventures with cosmic wool, and her retirement from social face-eating competition, she ends up a saint, living on a traffic island. This story is darkly comic and completely bonkers in ways that mean it somehow ends up making sense.
First published – in French – as Une Chemise de nuit de flanelle, Parisot, 1951, translated by Ives Bonnefoy, then in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Dutton, 1988 and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Dorothy Project, 2017
All right, I thought to myself, the journey has begun. The night will surely bring a solution. If I keep count of the trees until I reach the place I’m going to, I shan’t get lost. I’ll remember the number of trees on the return journey.
But I’d forgotten that I could only count to ten, and even then I made mistakes. In a very short time I’d counted to ten several times, and I’d gone completely astray. Trees surrounded me on all sides. ‘I’m in a forest,’ I said, and I was right.
The full moon shone brightly between the trees, so I was able to see, a few yards in front of me, the origins of a distressing noise. It was two cabbages having a terrible fight. They were tearing each other’s leaves off with such ferocity that soon there was nothing but torn leaves everywhere and no cabbages.
Collected in The Debutante and Other Stories, Silver Press, 2017. Read it online here
Virginia Fur lives in an abandoned village, and rides around, ‘between precipices, across trees,’ on a wheel. She has ‘a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails’, and she smells pretty interesting. Virginia Fur falls for a wild boar called Igname after he declares his love, dressed up for the occasion in a wig of squirrels’ tails and fruit, and with a nightjar perched atop his head. How could she resist? I couldn’t. Sadly, their furious passion is short-lived. Carrington’s stories often tread a line between the fabulous and the wilfully surreal, and ones that tip too far in the latter direction can make for a bewildering read. This one delivers the satisfaction of all Carrington’s strange imaginative flourishes adorning a story that we can recognise: love lost and avenged. I can’t remember where I first found this story, but it has lodged in my imagination ever since. Carrington’s work is a great reminder to let rip when it comes to writing, to embrace ideas and let them ride their wheels into the wild.
in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Virago, 1989